Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's final Premier League home game of the season in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Southampton have the chance to make it three wins on the spin on Tuesday as they welcome Leeds United for the penultimate game of the season.
Both sides are fighting to end the campaign strongly, setting the tone for a good pre-season and start to next, while the Saints will have their eye on matching last term’s 11th-placed finish – something that’s only possible if they take six points this week.
Leeds will be some test, Marcelo Bielsa’s unique playing style causing plenty of tactical consternation for Premier League managers this season, but here are the three keys to conquering them.
Leeds’ tactical style is unique in several ways, but perhaps the two clearest ways they set themselves apart are: 1) their insistence on carrying a numerical advantage at the back, and 2) their willingness to man mark.
The numerical advantage comes from switching from two centre-backs to three when Leeds face a striker partnership; that allows two to take a man each and the other to remain spare, therefore able to either push up into midfield or sweep around behind.
The man-marking – quite rare in a Premier League dominated by zonal marking nowadays –allows them to be aggressive and dogged and tenacious when defending, making the game a series of one-on-one duels across the pitch that they hope to win.
There’s every chance Bielsa fields three centre-backs to combat Saints’ genuine front two, removing the one-on-one scenarios Ché Adams and Danny Ings often revel in.
Ings’s movements back into midfield will likely be tracked thoroughly and aggressively by England colleague Kalvin Phillips, too; he’ll have to overcome some physical and robust attention in order to have his usual impact on the game between the lines.
Another distinct feature of Leeds’ play is the extreme width they hold when they’re on the ball.
When goalkeeper Illan Meslier plays it short from the back, the full-backs (or wing-backs) will be stood with their heels on the touchline, as will the wingers a bit further up, stretching the pitch horizontally and creating as big a space as possible to play in. They’ll then combine short passes to draw opponents in, before springing into the space created.
This brings into focus how incredibly fit, physical and explosive Leeds are; it can be very difficult to deal with, and sometimes forces opponents into playing man-to-man themselves, getting stuck in to halt the flow.
Playing against Bielsa’s Leeds is as much a test of quality and tactics as it is simply pure fitness. They make the pitch huge so there’s loads of ground to cover, and they engage you physically. It’s a rugged battle many dislike, but those who do rise to it and match them can find success.
Leeds’ biggest task transitioning into their sophomore Premier League season will be to sharpen up defending set-pieces. No team in the league has conceded more from these situations than the Whites (15) and it’s been an Achilles heel of theirs all campaign long.
Southampton, on the other hand, have mastered this particular art. No team has scored more goals from set-pieces than the Saints (15), creating a direct and stark contrast between the clubs in this area.
The whip and dip of James Ward-Prowse’s deliveries, the sheer size of Jannik Vestergaard and the poaching instincts of Ings and Adams...they’re things for any team to be wary of, but Leeds in particular may be especially vulnerable.
There’s an awareness among the Leeds players that set-pieces are a weakness; you can see it in their actions and how they react to dead balls coming into the box. One of Southampton’s biggest difference-makers in this game can be to play on that and punish it.